Monday, May 30, 2011
Ode to the Crawfish Boil
I can't put my finger on precisely what it is. Is it their pint-size cuteness? Their buttery-sweet flesh guarded within mini-lobster-like tails? Or the recklessness of it all, tearing heads from tails, throwing shells askew... In Louisiana, the crawfish boil is one of the many signals of spring turning over to summer.
Picture a sweltering weekend afternoon in Louisiana. Muggy, hot, heavy air. And then picture a backyard, of any size, large folding tables set up banquet style, wrapped in plastic with butcher paper thrown on top. Beers are served generously as people meet and greet, their eyes distracted, wandering frequently over to the corner of the yard, where there sits a large multi-gallon pot being heated by a propane tank with a giant colander fitted inside. Hosts are throwing in ears of corn, potatoes, sausage, lemon halves and spices, on top of heaping piles of boiling, bubbling crawfish. When will it be ready is the question burning on everyone's brain.
The contents of the cauldron are finally removed from the heat by the colander-like apparatus, and poured generously down the length of the tables. Beers are immediately set down, and like ravenous beasts, humans begin tearing crawdad heads off, pinching tails, and sucking down the sweet and spicy flesh of the elusive crustaceon. If done properly, guests are sweating like pigs, their mouths on fire from the heat of both the spices and the flesh.
I love a good crawfish boil.
Like most of the culinary traditions of New Orleans with any merit, the crawfish boil has its roots in Cajun country, where refugees of the British expulsion from Canada eventually settled. When first granted asylum by the King of Spain in the 1700's in Louisiana, the Acadians first passed through the big easy, where they were treated with disdain by the French aristocracy who already called New Orleans their home. They made their way westward, deeper within the sleepy swamps of Southern Louisiana along the Mississippi, settling in what is now ubiquitously known as Acadiana, or Cajun Country. Acadians, eventually referred to as Cajuns, thrived in the fertile swamp, taking advantage of everything native including the crustaceons. At the heart of Acadiana is the one million acres of the Atchafalaya Basin, which is today the largest crawfish reserve, and as I write these words, its multi-generational human inhabitants have relocated due to the opening of the floodgates of the Mississippi River by the federal government.
As a people with an agrarian heritage, the Cajuns also learned to farm crawfish in rice fields left to fallow. A drive through Acadiana is notable for the flat plains filled with rice, which alternatively serve as crawfish hatcheries, enabling a longer season for crawfish by two months. Farm-raised crawfish harvest can begin in December and end in July.
The music, food and culture of the Acadian people remains resilient, and a source of pride for many Louisianans, not only in Cajun strongholds like Beaux Bridge and Lafayette, but also back into New Orleans. Typically a weekend family tradition, it has also been adopted as the perfect summer kick-off, battling the barbecue for 1st place in the hearts of Louisianans.
So, while you can pick up a batch of crawfish in plenty of bars and restaurants, the traditional crawfish boils are the privilege of those who've stayed in town long enough to have some roots with the denizens of this fine town. Having moved here last June, it wasn't until April 2011 that I experienced my first, and haven't stopped since then, counting five already this season.
The Almighty Crawfish Boil is a visceral experience. Standing in the swampy heat, all you can breathe are the fragrances of the mudbug and the spice bath. You perch yourself in a spot amongst friends old and new, all of whom, like you, are focusing all energies on the task at hand: how to extract that tail from the shell with ease and efficiency. There is invariably music in the background, dipping sauces, chunks of potatoes and sausage. You eat with your hands and blow your nose on paper towels to cool down. And if you're like me, you suck the spicy juices from the crawfish heads like a character in a science fiction movie, or just a normal Asian. There is nothing but hollow shells left on the butcher paper, empty beer cans are askew, rinds of lemons.
So trust me on this one: If you find that even after a thorough washing, your hands hold a crawfish fragrance, your mouth is on fire, and sinuses are cleared, consider yourself lucky because these are all signs of a good day at a crawfish boil.
Backyard boils. The ultimate crawfish boil occurs in the backyard. If you can, get yourself invited to one; If you're especially lucky, go to a hipster crawfish boil, so that you can elbow hip vegetarians out of the way and have more goods for yourself.
Restaurant if you must. If you find yourself anywhere near Lafayette, try Hawk's, a family establishment nestled in the middle of a family-owned rice farm and crawfish field. It's about a half hour drive out of Lafayette, but these giant mudbugs are worth the distance.
Local bars. Any bar with seafood in New Orleans should be able to throw a crawdad your way, but local corner bars will have a traditional boil once a week in any of the less polished neighborhoods (think Central City, Mid-City, Seventh Ward, etc.).
Bonne chance and bon apetit!